I was out cold on the gravel driveway, with small chunks of rock embedded in my skull. A gun was lying next to me. The hot sun beat down on my face and I tried to open my eyes as I came to, only able to see slightly when the sun was blocked by the shadowy faces looking down at me, “Are you ok?” they asked. I vaguely remember hearing someone scream for ice and a towel. Maybe someone said call 911. That could have just been my imagination.
The rifle lying next to me was the second gun I’d ever held. Back when I was eleven, my parents often left me home to watch my nine and one year-old siblings, but rarely was I ever home alone. Perhaps they felt it was safer if we all were together, though I’d been known for dropping the baby. A haphazard trip over the corner of the rug, or I’d reach out to answer the phone on the wall forgetting she was in my arms. Grandma said it was jealousy. Dad called me klutzy, but I’d grown up a lot in a year and hadn’t dropped my sister in several months.
On this particular day, I found myself alone for the first time that I can recall. My brother was on a Boy Scout trip, dad was at work and mom had taken the baby to the doctor. Naturally, when I knew the coast was clear, I went into my parents’ bedroom upstairs because it was the only room in the house with air-conditioning, a small unit in the bedroom window with a hum that would lull me into a rare, blissful summer nap whenever I could sneak time in their room. It was about as close to heaven as one could get in that sticky hot house on the cul-de-sac in Raleigh, North Carolina.
As I lay there with my skinny tanned legs stretched across the star patterned bedspread that grandma had quilted with her very own arthritic hands, my eyes landed on mom’s jewelry box atop the dresser. I pretty much knew what was in there, having sat next to her as she took out her pearls to wear for mass on many a Sunday. I’d tried on her ring from St. Francis Xavier High, class of 1962, twisted rosary beads into bracelets and put on the mood ring she’d gotten in the late sixties when I was a baby. She said her mood was always a bright happy pink when I was around but whenever she put it on in my presence it turned deep purplish black signifying stress.
The dresser had six drawers and I was curious what secrets might lie within. I quickly discovered that four of them were mom’s. I knew the bottom right drawer was where she kept her slips and nightgowns because just about every Halloween when she helped me create my gypsy costumes, I used layers of those slips coupled with her scarves, grandma’s most gaudy clip-on earrings and the Mardi Gras beads one of daddy’s co-workers brought back from a trip to New Orleans.
I’d find out three years later why she bothered to keep a drawer full of maternity clothes when another baby came along. I quickly closed dad’s underwear drawer with an audible “Eew!”, but it was dad’s bottom left drawer that intrigued me. Under several neatly folded sweaters was a thin cardboard box full of patches and pins from his days in the Navy along with a scattering of gray blue squares that I later learned were Trojan condoms that had expired in the 60s. Beneath the patches and some military documents were a couple of Playboy magazines from 1964. My eyes grew big as saucers as I took in the photos of the naked centerfolds. I’d never seen such a thing. I’d only caught an occasional glimpse of my own mother hastily pulling on a dress over her full coverage bra and opaque high-rise cotton panties. This was otherworldly. I would return to that box often in my early teen years, desperately seeking hints of what was yet to come and that no one but Judy Bloom ever talked to me about.
But that day, when the outside air was thick with the scent of honeysuckle and the sweat of neighborhood kids playing war with squirt guns and water balloons in the yards encircling the cul-de-sac, I was rifling through my father’s belongings in air-conditioned bliss. I heard a bang like a door closing in the distance and neatly but hastily placed the box under dad’s red Mr. Rogersesque cardigan and ran across the hall to see if my family was home. No sign of the Ford LTD.
Naturally, I returned to my Nancy Drew-like sleuthing and felt under the the thick Shetland wool pull-over daddy bought when he was stationed in Scotland. Spicy mothballs rolled onto the bottom of the drawer as I came upon a small hard case and when I snapped it open, I discovered a gun. My father had a gun! I was awed by this hidden side of my dad. Was he a secret agent or something?
I could never confront my parents because I’d have to admit to snooping. Scenarios of dad’s secret life played out in my head as I eventually dozed off with a stripe of the afternoon sun melting across the quilt and my cut-off jean shorts. I awoke to the definitive slam of our front door and scrambled to get the gun securely into its gun-shaped foam space as a bag full of small yellow pellets spilled out all over the bed and rolled onto the floor. I picked up as many as I could and kicked the rest under the bed, vowing to collect them later. I knew an offer to vacuum would always be joyfully greeted by my mom, but I’d have to keep the baby off the floor long enough to casually make that proposal.
I didn’t realize until many years later, after fantasies of my father’s secret spy career had long since fizzled, that the gun was a pellet gun and he could no more have joined James Bond in a car chase down Hillsborough Street than he could have protected our house.
And then came the birthday party at the farmhouse two summers later when I was thirteen. There’d been barbeque, potato salad and salty green beans. A dozen teens sat in a circle under the sycamore tree throwing the spiky balls at each other and drinking cans of Cheerwine. Michelle was picking long strips of dead sunburned skin off Russell’s back as Peter scratched at the mosquito bites on his legs until they bled. Julie’s dad must have seen that we were bored and suggested we might like to do some shooting at the range. The boys jumped up immediately, kicking up dust as they followed Mr. Henderson down the gravel driveway, a rifle slung over his shoulder like he was heading off for war.
The range turned out to be a wood fence with a pyramid of Budweiser cans stacked on the top rail. Mr. Henderson told all the kids to step back as he took aim and fired. BAM! The sound echoed across the field, bouncing off surrounding trees as the top can went flying and the whole tower crumbled. “YEE HAW!” shouted Mr. Henderson as Julie’s little brother ran across the field to rebuild the pyramid and came back with the victim can, a hole clean through the round Anheuser Busch insignia.
After all the boys had their turns, the kickback nearly jolting the skinniest guys off their feet, none of the girls stepped up. Julie was sitting on one of the boulder-like rocks that lined the drive rolling her eyes, the hot sun baking us all as we squinted through the sweat dancing across our foreheads and precariously perching atop our brows. I didn’t like seeing girls being sissies so I stood up from my little patch of crabgrass and felt a bit lightheaded from the abrupt movement. “Now that’s a girl!” said Mr. Henderson, and I felt a flit of pride as he positioned the gun against my shoulder, wrapping it with the crook of my arm. “You ever held a gun before he asked?” I could smell the beer on his breath. “Yeah,” I replied casually but loud enough for the boys behind me to hear, “Just my dad’s revolver,” I said, using the name of the gun I’d heard tale of in Charlie’s Angels the night before.
“Now all you have to do is aim through here,” he said, pointing at the viewfinder, “And pull this trigger here,” he put my finger where it needed to go. And I remember feeling a bit nauseous and a tinge lightheaded but willing myself to focus on the tower of cans fifty yards away. But they seemed blurry, and then I heard the rumble of a train in my ears and the echo of a shot and then blackness.
When I came to, Mrs. Henderson held a damp washcloth wrapped around ice cubes to what I’d later see was a lump on my temple. Though I tried to walk, Mr. Henderson swooped me in his sweaty arms and deposited me on the mesh-woven Aluminum folding chair by the fire pit as we waited for my dad to collect me up in his pickup truck. Who knows if it was heat, hormones, fear or the recoil that took me down. “I’m just glad she didn’t shoot anybody,” I heard my dad tell Mr. Henderson as I awkwardly waved goodbye to my friends, embarrassed to have taken the hoot and holler out of the party just when it was kind of picking up.